November 08, 2012

(++++) OH YES,’TIS THE SEASON


Pete the Cat Saves Christmas. Created and illustrated by James Dean. Story by Eric Litwin. Harper. $17.99.

Charlie and the Christmas Kitty. By Ree Drummond. Illustrated by Diane de Groat. Harper. $17.99.

The Berenstain Bears’ Old-Fashioned Christmas. By Jan & Mike Berenstain. Harper. $12.99.

Santa on the Loose! By Bruce Hale. Illustrations by Dave Garbot. Harper. $7.99.

It’s Christmas! By Jack Prelutsky. Pictures by Marylin Hafner. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $3.99.

Cowboy Christmas. By Rob Sanders. Illustrated by John Manders. Golden Books. $10.99.

Baby’s Christmas. By Esther Wilkin. Illustrated by Eloise Wilkin. Golden Books. $6.99.

      As sure as seasonal songs showing up in every imaginable retail establishment, seasonal kids’ books show up every year in plenty of time to become Christmas gifts or get kids into the spirit of the holidays. In this year as in others, the books whose view of the holiday is slightly askew are particularly enjoyable in the latest crop of works for ages 4-8. One of them is Pete the Cat Saves Christmas, featuring huge-eyed Pete on his surfboard in Key West, Florida, getting an emergency call from an ailing Santa, who has caught a cold and won’t be able to make it this Christmas. Can Pete save the holiday? Well, of course he can, with the oft-repeated refrain, “And although I am small,/ at Christmas we give,/ so I’ll give it my all” to encourage him. A road trip in Pete’s minibus soon takes him to the North Pole, where the bus gets packed with presents and pulled aloft by Santa’s reindeer, and Pete delivers gifts to every single child on Santa’s list, finishing just as dawn breaks – and kids everywhere are delighted. As they will be by this amusingly offbeat variation on the “someone unexpected saves Christmas” motif.

      For some amusement with dogs instead of cats – well, of dogs in addition to cats – there is the return of Charlie from Charlie the Ranch Dog, having a seasonal adventure in Charlie and the Christmas Kitty. Charlie, basset hound and self-proclaimed King of the Ranch, is, as usual, not very self-aware and not very aware of events around him, either, as he watches Christmas decorations brought into the house, sees them being set up, then goes on to do what he does best – nap. That’s a perfect Christmas for Charlie, but something turns up that he certainly did not expect: an adorable kitten (Charlie first thinks it’s a rabbit and, in an absolutely hilarious illustration, “surrounds” it). The kitten arrival is quite unacceptable, so Charlie decides to “go back to sleep and pretend this never happened,” but of course the kitten is still there when he wakes up – and also of course, after a series of minor misadventures, he decides it’s not so bad after all and declares, “I guess the kitty can stay.” And a good time is had by all – notably including families enjoying this delightful book.

      Other Christmas goodies are somewhat less special but still get solid (+++) ratings. Berenstain Bears books are always a touch heavy on the “family values” emphasis – we get it already! – but certainly retain their charm for fans of the characters in this multi-decade series. The Berenstain Bears’ Old-Fashioned Christmas presents exactly what the title promises: Ma and Pa and the kids visiting Gramps and Gran for a seasonal celebration filled with snow, Christmas cards, tree decorating, folksy (or bearsy) homemade ornaments, the words to “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” ornament-making instructions, “gingerbread bears,” and even a very minor crisis (Gramps forgets to open the damper when starting a fire, so Pa has to step in and do it). Carolers, eggnog, “Jingle Bells,” even suggested treats for backyard animals (such as an apple with sunflower seeds and a pinecone spread with peanut butter and rolled in seeds) – they are all here, presented as usual with warmth, mild amusement and a heaping helping of holiday spirit in the usual Berenstain style.

      The pictures, not the narrative, are the thing in the (+++) Santa on the Loose! This is a sort of Where’s Waldo? for Christmas, with Santa searching for clues to find out who stole all the toys just before the holiday. The six suspects are shown at the start, and then it is just a matter of seeing which one is best matched to the clues Santa finds. But first kids have to find Santa, who is hidden in each illustration (not as well as Waldo – on purpose). Find Santa, see what he is holding, check back with the pictures of the suspects, and figure out who took the toys – that is the whole plot here, as Santa scours the toy workshop, Ye Olde Elf Inn, the polar bears’ ice cave, and other busy locations (where, the underlying plot aside, there seems to be plenty of activity – and toys galore). Eventually, Santa finds enough clues to know who the culprit is, and there is even a (rather lame) explanation of what was going on. The search is the thing here, not the story – and there is a bonus search for nine additional objects offered at the end, for a touch of extra enjoyment.

      The poems are the main dose of enjoyment in It’s Christmas! This is a Level 3 book (“complex plots for confident readers”) in the I Can Read series. The poems’ subjects are straightforward in this (+++) book, but as usual, Jack Prelutsky presents ordinary topics in a highly amusing way. In the traditional “Christmas list” poem that is inevitable in books like this one, for example, he neatly mixes the straightforward with the fantastic: “I’d like a stack of comic books,/ a dozen apple pies,/ a box of chocolate brownies,/ and an elephant that flies…”  He gets a bit maudlin in “The Mistletoe” and rather obvious with the unwanted gift of underwear, but “Singing Christmas Carols” is fun (“Dad sings like a buffalo/ and Mother like a moose”), and so is “Another Santa Claus,” about the proliferation of bearded, red-and-white-coated ho-ho-ho-ing characters seen during the season.  New readers will enjoy sounding out the simple rhymes and following the various threads of the seasonal stories – including the final one, about the need to clean up the puddle that a “little tubby floppy” Christmas puppy inevitably produces.

      Of course, there are also some nice seasonal books for families with children below the 4-8 age range. Cowboy Christmas is for ages 2-5, and is the story of three cowboys – Dwight, Darryl and Dub – stuck out on the range three days before Christmas within nothing’ but cows an’ grub from Cookie an’ a cactus for a Christmas tree. They try decoratin’ the cactus with hay and cans of corn, but it looks “downright ugly,” and the cowboys are unhappy. They remember more-enjoyable Christmases from the past, but nothin’ they do seems t’work out right – not the charred sugar-molasses-bean cookies, not the “downright pitiful” cows with twigs for antlers that they hoped would look like reindeer. But come Christmas itself, they find a right nice surprise back at camp, and have a rootin’ tootin’ delightful Christmas after all (with a wink from Cookie). A pleasant (+++) book for kids who enjoy stereotypical cowboy tales, Cowboy Christmas nicely mixes the silly with the sentimental.

      The new board-book version of Baby’s Christmas, a book that is all sentiment, is for even younger children, from birth to age four. Originally published in 1959, the book – meant to be read to baby, not by baby – shows a sweet, red-haired infant enjoying gifts such as a music box that plays “Rock-a-bye, baby,” a string of wooden beads, a soft toy dog with floppy ears, a small drum, a ball, all-wood scooter and rocking horse, old-fashioned bouncy seat that looks like a museum piece, even a wood milk truck with doors that open and small milk bottles that companies would never be allowed to sell today. The final gift is a big wooden toy box in which to store everything, and the final picture shows baby putting everything away – a bit unrealistic, but a nice touch of idealism.  A cute (+++) book filled with nostalgia both in its gentle rhymes and in its pictures of toys from an earlier time, Baby’s Christmas does not really fit into an era of plastic and electronics. But for that very reason, it may be something that parents will enjoy reading to and with their little ones as a reminder of the contrast between Christmas now and Christmas half a century ago.

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